Hating hater hates on in-flight internet

Ahhh, the relaxing time of the day when I get to read a rant published in the New York Times posing as legit content. Today’s example (actually published earlier this week) is a piece entitled “The Sorry State of In-Flight Wi-Fi” and is essentially a screed based on one man’s experience trying to use the service on one flight from New York City to Los Angeles. His experience was not so good. And so all in-flight internet service must be awful.

It is a well written rant, with some great quips included. A couple of my favorites are:

It’s so slow and unreliable that it shouldn’t be allowed to call itself “Wi­Fi.” Renaming it Airplane Dial­Up would be unfair to dial­up.


But if we do the math, something doesn’t seem to add up. Sure, the airlines and some Wi­Fi providers are now raking in profits: Not only has the number of Wi­Fi customers grown drastically, but so has the price (in some cases more than double). Passengers, however, are paying more for a slower service.

Clearly he has not read the SEC filings from the various wifi providers. Because rolling in profits is most certainly not the way things are happening.

That's the mount point for a Gogo ATG4 antenna
That’s the mount point for a Gogo ATG4 antenna; read more about the install process here.

Nick Bilton, the author of the story, mentions that he’s flying on Virgin America which means the flight was fitted with Gogo‘s ATG4 system. That system, despite Bilton’s claims to the contrary, is actually much more robust than the Gogo of yesteryear. Is it sufficient to support 70 concurrent users with great performance for everyone all the time? Maybe, maybe not. But it is quite an upgrade from the service offered some 5 years ago.

Bilton goes on to suggest a solution to the problem: Make the service free. Because apparently having 70 paying users on the system is too many but adding more because it is free will somehow make the service faster for all those passengers. That’s a serious disconnect with reality. He does mention both JetBlue and Norwegian Air, each of which offers a free internet service in-flight for passengers. The JetBlue “FlyFi” system provided by Thales & ViaSat has significantly more capacity than the Gogo solution and provides a solid full-browsing user experience on even the free tier. The Norwegian offering provided by Global Eagle Entertainment not so much. And even Aditya Chatterjee, Global Eagle’s CTO & SVP of engineering, has acknowledged that the free Norwegian offering is really only useful for messaging, not the full-featured web experience Bilton was seeking.

The solution, unfortunately, is to just wait a bit longer. That was also the solution 2 years ago and 2 years before that. It is not clear that the providers will ever be able to catch up to the demand being placed on the system by users as more planes are fitted and more passengers on each aircraft are logging on. Gogo’s 2Ku solution will provide much faster, satellite-based connectivity for aircraft hopefully starting later in 2015 and with wider deployment in 2016. ViaSat hopes to have its next Ka-band satellite with broader coverage over the Americas in the sky in 2016 and Inmarsat has two satellite launches scheduled for the first half of this year with hopes of a global, high-speed constellation operating in early 2016. And other, new satellites are being designed and launched with reasonable frequency.

We’ve never been closer. But that doesn’t mean we’re there yet. And in the mean time, at least the rants should be well informed. Bilton’s was decidedly not.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.


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